15 January 2021

The Dustiest Bookcase: K is for Keith

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

The Bells of St. Stephen's
Marian Keith
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1922
336 pages

My rule when buying books by Marian Keith is to pay no more than two dollars. I ignored this with The Bells of St. Stephen's, which set me back four dollars. The cover, depicting a young woman with volume in hand, seduced.

I don't know what to make of Marian Keith because I've never read her. She exists in a fog, as do so many once-popular Canadian novelists. Keith was more successful than the vast majority, and yet she's still miles below contemporaries like Gilbert Parker, Ralph Connor, Basil King, and L.M. Montgomery (with whom she co-authored 1934's Courageous Women.) I doubt one of Keith's novels sold as well as Robert E. Knowles' St. Cuthbert's, but her literary career lasted much longer, stretching from Duncan Polite (1906) to The Grand Lady (1960).

I've been meaning to read Keith for years. Is The Bells of St. Stephen's the best place to begin? In Canadian Novelists: 1920-1945 (1946), Clara Thomas suggests that Keith's best is A Gentleman Adventurer (1924).

I've yet to cross paths with anyone who has read Keith, but I'm sure you're out there.

Where should I begin?

My Marian Keith collection.
Total expense: $11.00

01 January 2021

Gordon Pinsent's Gift

A Gift to Last
Gordon Pinsent and Grahame Woods
Toronto: Seal, 1978
215 pages

Gordon Pinsent celebrated his ninetieth birthday last summer. I recognized the day – July 12th – by raising a glass and downing its contents... and then I thought of this book.

A Gift to Last was a Salvation Army Thrift Store score. Did I pay fifty cents or a dollar? The sight of it brought back memories. A Gift to Last began in 1976 as a critically-acclaimed made-for-TV Christmas movie. Its popularity spawned a television series that ran for three seasons before Pinsent pulled the plug. 

In any other country, A Gift to Last would be aired annually as a Christmas classic. I saw it only once, in my adolescence, and so have to rely on this novelization. The early pages follow a familiar pattern. We begin with Harrison Sturgess – his very name suggests a stick-in-the-mud – the father of two children: sensible, strong-willed Jane, and "pale-skinned, fragile-looking" Clement. You might guess which child Harrison favours.

Clement is the novel's protagonist, though his Uncle Edgar is the hero. Portrayed by Pinsent, Edgar is larger than life and stronger than nature. He appears on Christmas Eve 1898, having made his way through a blinding snowstorm to his bother's expansive home in small town Ontario. Edgar is the black sheep of the family in that he joined the Royal Canadian Regiment, instead of following dour brothers Harrison and James into the Sturgess tannery business. A joker, a singer, a teller of tall tales, and heavy drinker, Edgar has an eye for the ladies. You might guess which brother this reader favours. 

I believe the novelization is faithful to its source material, but can't say to what degree because both movie and series haven't aired in over four decades. My memory is just not that good. I do remember that the movie was framed by Clement as an old man looking back on that Christmas of his youth. The novelization abandons all things 1976, instead presenting a linear story that begins in fin de siècle Tamarack (the series' fictitious small Ontario town) and ends just a few year later. Things happen, and as in the very best television, strength lies in the ways in which characters react and interact in the face of these events.

The first episode of the series – chapters four through six in the novelization – revolves around the illness and death of Harrison Sturgess (because Alan Scarfe, who'd played the character in the movie, was committed to the Stratford Festival). His unexpected demise changes the dynamic of the Sturgess family. In black silk weeds and weeping veil, the widowed Clara withdraws from her children, retreating into memories of her late husband. Cold and calculating James sees his chance to not only expand the tannery, which Harrison opposed, but control his later brother's finances. Eleven-year-old Clement, who is told he is now the man of the house, struggles with the distant relationship he had with his dead father. Edgar, who recognizes his surviving brother's conniving, is torn between duty to family and the Dominion.

Following the hot mess "shapeless jumble" that was The Whiteoaks of Jalna (1972), A Gift to Last is an all-too-rare example of Canadian television period drama. Like the programme, the novelization is rich in history. In her mourning, Clara recalls a trip to Montreal, where William Notman took her portrait, and she visited Savage, Lyman & Co on Notre-Dame Street.

Grahame Woods' novelization is unembellished, as one might expect from a former screenwriter. He understands pacing, story, and the use of dialogue, making for an entertaining adaptation of an entertaining show.

Novelizations of television programmes seem such quaint things today. Relics of a time before Betamax, next to the Fotonovel, they were the only way to revisit shows and movies on demand. Not that A Gift to Last made it to Betamax or VHS or Laserdisc or DVD. The series has never been offered by any streaming service. Hell, CBC Gem doesn't even offer The Beachcombers

How I wish I could see it again. Until then, I've got this.

A Christmas Miracle: I read A Gift to Last on Christmas Day, and wrote the above on Boxing Day.  The very next day, December 27, someone going by the name of Chance Wolf uploaded the movie to YouTube:

As it turns out, my memory wasn't so far off. The novelization pares down the script somewhat. Old man Clement appears more than I remember, and is much more sour. I didn't remember anything of the father's early morning drinking. Even more remarkable, my memory held nothing of actress Barbara Gordon's orange lounging attire.

Credits: The cover credits the novel to Gordon Pinsent and Graham Woods. The title page clarifies:

Trivia: Gordon Pinsent co-wrote and sang the theme song. It was released as a single by the CBC and on South Africa's Plum label.

His character is also given to singing. Lines several songs are found throughout the book, but for all my efforts I haven't been able to identify one. Could they be Pinsent's own?  Here's a example, from the family gathering to see Edgar off to the Second Boer War:
By eight o'clock, things had got quite serious and maudlin. Edgar decided that enough was enough, did a quick shuffle-step and started to sing. 
          In the middle of Auntie's petunias,
          Where I thought I'd rest for a spell,
          There along came a couple of lilies
          And their names were Virginia and Nell... 
"Not another word of that song, you old fool, Lizzy sniffed back a tear.
     "But you taught it to me."
     She slapped at him. "I did not. Have you ever heard anything quite so foolish.
Darn that Lizzy Sturgess for cutting him off.

More trivia: In 1978, the made-for-TV movie was adapted to the stage by Alden Nowlan and Walter Learning.

Object and Access: A mass market paperback. Eleven stills feature on the interior covers. Were this an American production they would've been interior plates. The novel itself is followed by the first two chapters of Charles Templeton's thriller An Act of God, "to be on sale August 23rd [1978], wherever paperbacks are sold."

As far as I've been able to tell, A Gift to Last enjoyed just one printing. I've not been able to find it in any library catalogue. A handful of used copies are listed for sale online, ranging in price from US$3.89 to US$34.97. Condition is a factor.

26 December 2020

The Very Best Reads of a Plague Year

Not one week into 2020, I met a physician friend for dinner at Sidedoor in Ottawa's ByWard Market. Over too many drinks, he told me of his concerns about a virus sweeping through China's Hubei province. I'd seen a bit about it on the CBC and had noticed headlines in the Globe & Mail, but didn't take the threat nearly so seriously. Again, too many drinks. Eleven months later, we've just spent our first Christmas apart from our daughter. Parents and a grandparent, who live well within driving distance, were kept at bay. To think that in last year's 'Best Reads' I described 2019 as "a very strange year."

Here's to better times.

I reviewed twenty-one titles here and in the pages of Canadian Notes & Queries this year. Tradition dictates that I suggest three most deserving of a return to print. Easily done:

The New Front Line
Hubert Evans
Toronto: Macmillan, 1927

The first novel by a writer remembered – when he is remembered – for Mist on the River (1954). Here Evans draws upon his own experiences as a returning Great War veteran who rejects the city and its commerce for a healthier life in rural British Columbia. The love of a good woman figures.

Perilous Passage
Arthur Mayse
New York: Pocket, 1950

West Coast rural noir written by a transplanted Manitoban, this tale of two teens confronting a drug cartel brought back such memories. Nothing to do with battling crooks, you understand, rather being young. I was caught up in Joe and Devvy's adventure and romance. I'm betting you will be, too.

Alan Sullivan
London J.M. Dent, 1914

The first book I read this year, and the first of the author's thirty-something novels, Blantyre—Alien has grown on me. A story as strange as its title, it concerns a medical doctor, his wife, and their disintegrating marriage. I found interest in its depiction of Toronto the Good  

Two books I reviewed this year are currently in print:

The lone book revisited this year, I first read Not for Every Eye, Glen Shortliffe's translation of Gerard Bessette's Le libraire (1960), as a very young  man in in the summer of '85. I found I liked it more in middle age because my more seasoned self better understood narrator and protagonist Hervé Jodoin. An essential text for anyone interested in censorship as depicted in fiction or the dark days of Duplessis' Quebec. Not For Every Eye is available through Exile Editions

Does Armand Durand count? I read Mrs Leprohon's 1868 novel in a 19th-century French translation by J.-A. Genaud. The original is in print as part of the Borealis Press Early Canadian Women's Series. My French is so very weak that it took months for me to get through the novel. I wonder whether spending all that time with the Durand family contributed in some way to my concern for their trials.  

Two of the three novels selected last year as "most deserving of a return to print" did just that! I'm proud to say that I played a hand in both:

I Am Not Guilty
Frances Shelley Wees
Montreal, Véhicule, 2020

Following The Keys of My Prison, this is the second Wees novel I've helped revive. I'm torn as to which I prefer. In this 1954 tale of domestic suspense, a widow relocates to post-war suburban Toronto in an attempt to solve her husband's murder. Martinis and harried businessmen figure. Patti Abbott was good enough to provide the introduction.

The Ravine
Phyllis Brett Young
Montreal, Véhicule, 2020

First published in 1962 under the nom de plume Kendal Young, The Ravine was Phyllis Brett Young's only thriller. Remarkably, it remains the only one of her novels to have been adapted to the screen. Don't bother with the film, read the book. The introduction is by Amy Lavender Harris.

Praise this year goes to Mary Chapman and the ever-expanding Winnifred Eaton Archive. This online site provides a remarkable wealth of material concerning the groundbreaking Asian-Canadian author of Marion and "Cattle", amongst other novels. Of late, I've become increasingly interested in Eaton's Hollywood years. The Archive somehow satisfies while fuelling my desire for more. Do visit!

And now, the resolutions:

I've got three book projects on the go, but will be doubling down on telling the awful story of Maria Monk. As a result, fewer titles will be reviewed here next year. I'll be filling the gaps by reviving 'The Dustiest Bookcase.' Seasoned readers may remember it as a series of short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

Oh... and as always, I resolve to keep kicking against the pricks.

Wishing everyone a Happier and Healthier New Year! Bonne année! 

Related posts:

24 December 2020

'Old Lady Christmas Shopping' by Edna Jaques

Edna Jaques, Poet Laureate of the Home, as captured by J.W. Tetlow for the 1 September 1951 issue of Maclean's magazine. This poem comes from Back-Door Neighbors (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1946).

21 December 2020

Best Books of 1920: Beware the Bolshevik Poets

The Globe, 4 December 1920
The 1920 Globe round-up of the year's best books was published on the first Saturday of that December. Twenty-four months had passed since the Armistice, and the introduction takes pains to position the conflict in the past:

This bold pronouncement follows:

The war has passed into history and even the "aftermath" is over.
Sure, but a good many titles concerning the Great War feature, and a new category makes its debut:

No, the conflict is still very much felt. Loss and sacrifice continue to inspire poetry, such as Our Absent Hero by Mrs Durie, the widow of Capt William Arthur Peel Durie.

Captain Durie died at Passchendaele on 29 December 1917 in an effort rescue wounded comrades in No Man's Land. 

Capt William Arthur Peel Durie
1881 - 1917

Another of the newspaper's poetry selections, J. Lewis Mulligan's The Beckoning Skyline and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1920), includes fifteen pieces of verse inspired by the war.

The 1920 Globe list recognizes a total of seven Canadian books of poetry, the others being:
               Acanthus and Wild Grape - F.O. Call
               Leaves on the Wind - Rev D.A. Casey
               Apple Blossoms - Carrie Wetmore McColl
               Lady Latour - Rev W.I. Morse
               Rhymes of a Northland - Hugh L. Warren
This is something of a return to form. Where in 1918, the paper gave notice to eight Canadian volumes of verse, the 1919 list featured all of two (one of which, Pauline Johnson's Flint and Feather, had been published seven years earlier).

As is so often the case in the paper's annual book list, the "Poetry" section brings columns of comment, much if it designed to distance we Canadians from our American cousins:
We usually write in metre and dislike poetical as well as other kinds of Bolshevism. It is merely the affectation of free verse that makes American 'poetry' more distinctive – or notorious – than Canadian. It is a cheap substitute for originality.
   There has been a great deal more verse published this year than appears in the publishers' lists. Nearly all of it has been printed at the authors' expense, and it has been circulated largely 'among friends.' This practice is not to be despised or discouraged, unless it raises false hopes in authors who have merely the faculty of rhyming without possessing poetical talent or literary judgement.
There are 264 titles in the 1920 Globe list, fifty-three of which are Canadian. Just six of the fifty-three – all novels, no poetry – feature in my library:

Going by the Globe, 1920 was as good year for the country's novelists and short story writers; twenty of the 114 fiction titles are Canadian:
          Aleta Dey - Francis M Beynon
          The La Chance Mine Mystery - S. Carleton
          Glen of the High North - H.A. Cody
          Sheila and Others - Winifred Cotter
          The Conquering Hero - Murray Gibbon
          Eyes of the Law - Ethel Penman Hope
          Daisy Herself - Will E. Ingersoll
          The Luck of the Mounted - Sgt Ralph Kendall
          The Thread of Flame - Basil King
          A Son of Courage - Archie P. McKishale
          Graydon of the Windermere - Evan McKowan
          Every Man for Himself - Hopkins Moorhouse
          The Forging of the Pikes - Anson North
          No Defence - Gilbert Parker
          Poor Man's Rock - Bertrand W. Sinclair
          Dennison Grant - Robert Stead
          The Prairie Mother - Arthur Stringer
          The Rapids - Alan Sullivan
          The Viking Blood - Frederick William Wallace
          Stronger Than His Sea - Robert Watson
For the first time, the newspaper lumps together Canadian fiction, though it errs in failing to recognize Basil King, Prince Edward Island's second bestselling author, as a fellow countryman. The Thread of Flame, Rev King's sixteenth novel, is listed with This Side of Paradise under the heading "By Other Authors."

I've read all of two of the twenty. The Thread of Flame ranks as my favourite King novel after The Empty Sack. The other, Hopkins Moorhouse's Every Man for Himself didn't make so much of an impression. I found it even less interesting than described: 

Of the remaining novels, The Prairie Mother was reprinted for a decade or so. In 1972, Alan Sullivan's The Rapids enjoyed a brief second life with the University of Toronto Press. It can' be argued that the most enduring Canadian novel of 1920 is Aleta Dey, which was revived in 1988 as a Virago Modern Classic. It remains in print to this day in a Broadview Press edition.

This country fares much worse in other categories. Where in 1919, Canadian authors took six of the coveted "Economics" titles, the 1920 showing amounts to A Study of Canadian Immigration by Prof W.G. Smith and Occupations for Trained Women in Canada by Mrs Vincent Massey. If forced to choose, I guess I'd read the latter. It might be interesting to see what advice Mrs Massey, daughter of Sir George Robert Parkin, wife of one of Canada's most privileged men — a future Governor General, no less — might have for the working woman.

The Canadian titles in the "Historical" category are a touch more tempting:
Hydro-Electric Development in Ontario - E.B. Biggar
The Cross-Bearers of the Sanguenay - Very Rev W.R. Harris
The Evolution of the Oil Industry - Victor Ross
The Life and Times of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt - O. D. Skelton
The Life and Work of Sir William Van Horne - W. Vaughan
A new edition of Katherine Hale's biography of Father Lacombe and a revised edition of George H. Locke's When Canada was New France. also feature, but the real standout is George T. Denison's Recollections of a Police Magistrate, which is deemed "our outstanding Canadian book of the year."

This is something new; the Globe had never before made such a pronouncement. Here's its description:

I haven't yet cracked open Recollections of a Police Magistrate — copies begin at $245 — but it can be read for free here thanks to the Internet Archive,

I prefer paper, myself.

Consider me old fashioned.

Tempted as I am to leave it there, this being 2020, I can't help but note that the 1920 Globe list — like those of 1918 and 1919 — features not so much a passing reference to the Spanish Flu.

Not one mention,

Not one book.